BCR - High-Tech Goes Even Higher
This was Marseilles Brick in the late 1990s. Located in Marseilles, Ill., the company had reached full capacity, but the demand for brick was so great that it
wasn’t coming close to meeting its customers’ needs. It was making a profit, but it wasn’t maximizing its potential.
Enter Global Clay Products LLC. Headquartered in Roswell, Ga., Global Clay was formed in 1999 to acquire, expand and modernize companies engaged in the extraction and processing of clay for the manufacture and sale of building products in North America. For Global Clay, Marseilles Brick was the perfect investment. “When we first reviewed the company, it struck us that it was in a superb location, being very close to the significant brick market of the Midwest. It also had adequate long-term reserves, as well as a good management team and employee skills. We felt that it would be ideal to open it up and increase its production,” said David Singleton, president and CEO of Global Clay Products.
On August 16, 1999, Marseilles Brick became Global Clay Marseilles. But for this promising brick plant, a name change was just the beginning. Over the next several years, more than $14 million would be spent on new, highly automated, state-of-the-art equipment—equipment that would propel Global Clay Marseilles into the 21st century of brick manufacturing.
Installing New EquipmentWhen the Marseilles plant was built in 1990, the building, a grinding room and a JC Steele extruder were all that existed. The company enlisted Ceric to provide a turnkey system that included a computerized, automated setting machine, dryer, kiln and dehacker. This state-of-the-art equipment enabled Marseilles Brick to produce up to 62 million high quality brick per year. But the Midwest brick market continued to grow, and it wasn’t long before 62 million brick wasn’t enough to satisfy distributors’ demands.
When Global Clay Products acquired the company in 1999, it immediately embarked on its goal of increasing production to 130 million brick per year. The company hired Prokeram GmbH, headquartered in Neuss, Nr. Dusseldorf, Germany, as construction manager for the project. In conjunction with Ceric, Prokeram provided the design and procurement services.
The grinding room was expanded to accommodate both raw and ground material and to increase grinding capacity. Unprocessed shale and fire clay is ground and stored separately before being screened and conveyed to finished product silos. Clays and additives are blended to exact specifications through variable-speed feeders, and are then homogenized and conveyed to the extruder. Finished clay is formed into a continuous column through an extruder with a vacuum chamber for selective surface treatment before being cut into brick sizes.
The setting equipment, originally supplied by Ceric, was updated to reflect the latest advances in computer technology. The traditional drives were replaced with servo motors to handle the additional capacity. After the brick are cut, adjusting devices and grippers set them onto the kiln cars, and the loaded kiln cars move automatically to holding rooms and then to four drying tunnels.
A new Ceric kiln and a dryer engineered by Prokeram were also part of the expansion, along with a kiln control room that provides linked computer control equipment for fully automatic brick handling and firing. The brick is fired up to 1950∞F, then transported by storage tracks to the dehacker for unloading. A new dehacker was custom-designed to handle the additional capacity. “The dehacker that we had in place when we were doing 62 million brick would not do the job for 130 million brick, so we asked Automated Solutions Inc. (ASI) to engineer equipment to meet our needs,” said Jim Johnson, the plant’s general manager. “Using robotic technology from Ceric, the company designed a dehacker to unload 40 cars per day—over 400,000 brick—in 12 hours operating at 70% of instantaneous capacity.”
Finally, all fired brick passes through a sorting area for inspection prior to reassembly into packages for shipping and distribution. Packaged brick, assigned for inventory, is tracked through the company’s sophisticated computerized control system so that customers can easily check on their orders.
“Everything is totally computerized, and this helps us maintain the high product quality for which Global Clay Marseilles is renowned,” said Johnson.
Reaping the RewardsThe new equipment began running in July 2000. Although the plant was still in the commissioning stage on its grinding plant and dehacker as this article was being written, it was expected to be running at full capacity by the end of April 2001.
Despite the hard winter in the Midwest and the current economic uncertainties, the company expects to achieve a cash payback on its investment within five years. “The residential market, which is influenced by interest rates and consumer confidence, is a bit uncertain, but we also supply commercial brick, and that aspect of the economy has kept going pretty well,” said Singleton. “There’s a big demand for new schools in the Midwest, and we hope to be able to provide them with Global Clay Marseilles brick. It’s a very good business. The margins are satisfactory, and we’re very pleased with it.”
In addition to allowing the plant to meet its production goals, expanding the facility has also provided several side benefits to the plant in terms of energy and production efficiencies. For instance, the new kiln features an energy saving design that has really come into play over the last several months, as natural gas prices skyrocketed. A continuously welded steel casing around the kiln’s walls and the crown makes the kiln completely air-tight, preventing leaks.
“Even though gas prices have settled down somewhat from the ridiculous levels of January, we’re still paying more than twice what we were 12 months ago, so it’s vital that our kilns be efficient,” said Singleton. “The existing kiln is only 12 years old and has a similar design, so it’s pretty state-of-the-art in itself. But we have managed to achieve even further improvements in energy efficiency with the new equipment.”
The new dehacker and other new equipment have also streamlined operations, allowing the company to push more product through in less time.
“We’re very pleased with the overall plant,” Singleton said. “For a number of years the plant was limited to the production it could put through the older kiln and equipment. Now, for the first time in the plant’s history, we’re capable of meeting our distributors’ requirements. There are areas that we’ll be continuing to improve in the general timing of brick handling, trying to shave off a few seconds here or there to make it even more efficient as the new equipment settles in. But we’re pretty much there now.”
As an added bonus, the expansion has provided the flexibility to investigate and pursue new product lines to meet customer demand. “It’s a little like the fashion industry,” Singleton said. “People’s wishes for brick in terms of color and texture change, and we want to keep pace with that by offering some new colors and styles. Our new equipment enables us to do just that.”